11 June 2005
Idaho could be hub for plutonium, space work
Post Register


Idaho National Laboratory is poised to become a hub for plutonium  production and space-related nuclear projects.

The Department of Energy is expected to release an environmental study later this month that evaluates a plan to consolidate plutonium-238 production and  manufacture it into batteries at its Idaho site. The batteries would be used  to power NASA space crafts as well as for national security uses like running surveillance equipment in remote locations.

In addition, INL's Naval Reactors Facility could soon begin designing and eventually manufacturing nuclear reactors to power space missions that  need more energy than the batteries could provide. That would probably include a manned mission to Mars.

A decision on whether the INL would help design those reactors, and whether  the NRF would be home to the work will be made this summer, said Harold McFarlane, an INL deputy associate laboratory director, at a press briefing  Friday.

Idaho Falls also will soon house the Center for Space Research, a university-organized center that will be affiliated with INL and its new  Center for Advanced Energy Studies.

The INL already became home to the final step of the plutonium battery production, the assembly of the batteries, in early 2004. The DOE wants to again produce the isotope, which it discontinued making in the mid-1980s,  in  INL's Advanced Test Reactor.

It is the only reactor still operating that is large enough to do so, McFarlane said.

DOE also wants move the isolation of the plutonium and its manufacture into pellets that would be encased in corrosion and heat-proof metal from Los Alamos to INL into a proposed $200 million-plus facility.

Consolidating the steps done at other DOE sites would mean material wouldn't be transported across the country, reducing safety and security concerns, said John Kotek, deputy manager of the DOE-Idaho office.

However, DOE is now also proposing to build a second, smaller plutonium-238 production facility at its Oak Ridge, Tenn., laboratory. That site was originally proposed to be home to the consolidated plutonium work before the DOE changed course two years ago and decided to put it in Idaho.

At public hearings in Idaho Falls this spring, residents raised concerns  about generating new waste, as well as the possibility of releases of  plutonium-238. That type of plutonium has an 80-year half life, much shorter  than plutonium-239, which is used in nuclear bombs.

But that makes it much more reactive, which is why it makes a good heat source for power. Its high radioactivity also makes it more dangerous if  inhaled -- the particles can become lodged in lungs.

Employees were accidentally exposed to plutonium on three different occasions at Los Alamos. The Centers for Disease Control found elevated  levels of plutonium around the lab and in nonworkers living nearby.

Kotek said the DOE is looking at those incidents and would learn from them.

"We think this is well within our experience to operate safely," he said.

In addition to health risks, Jeremy Maxand, executive director of the Snake River Alliance, a watchdog group, is also concerned about the national  security component. Plutonium is still available from Russia for use in  non-national security missions, he said.

"The INL is going to become a military facility," if it begins making  plutonium and reactors for national security missions, Maxand said.   "People  in Idaho do not want the site tied to these missions."

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